Boko Haram Marches On

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While the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has proclaimed its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the world is paying too little attention to Boko Haram, its deadly imitator in northeast Nigeria. Late in August, the terrorist group’s leader declared the establishment of his own Islamic caliphate in Africa, and in past weeks, he has seized a significant amount of territory there.

Although Boko Haram soared to international notoriety with the kidnapping of roughly 300 girls in northeast Nigeria earlier this year, the Western press has largely ignored its continuing campaign of kidnappings, brutality and now seizure of towns and territory. As J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council notes, Boko Haram has evolved and grown stronger, and is now able to seize and hold territory as opposed to launching one-off attacks.

Where Boko Haram has claimed control, it has ruled brutally and punished those who fail to follow its version of Islamist rule. The militants have reportedly beheaded men who refused to convert to Islam. They executed people for smoking cigarettes. They targeted Muslims who spoke out against them, killing a senior Muslim cleric last week.

The militants are now poised to attack target Maiduguri, a city of approximately 2 million people that serves as the capital of Borno state, which is also the birthplace of Boko Haram. In the past few weeks, the group has seized Bama, Gowza, Gamboru Ngala, Michika and Banki – all towns near the Cameroonian border. While the Nigerian military recently recaptured Bama, it has a long way to go in countering Boko Haram’s gains.

While a terrorist group in northeast Nigeria may seem far from the U.S. homeland, it should be one of our national security priorities. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and boasts its largest economy. While U.S. imports of Nigerian oil have declined sharply over the past decade, Nigeria holds the second largest proven reserves of oil in Africa. Nigeria also serves as a key security leader in West Africa.

Last week, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, said that the United States is close to announcing a new border-security initiative under the Global Security Contingency Fund that aims to assist countries affected by Boko Haram, including Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria. The bulk of the funds, however, will not go to Nigeria. Ultimately, these funds may be too little, too late.

The United States has incrementally stepped up intelligence collection efforts and cooperation with Nigeria to counter Boko Haram since this summer. American drones are stationed in N’Djamena, Chad, along with 80 troops who are involved in the search for the missing schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in April. The United States has also carved out small groups of Nigerian troops that can be trained and worked with under Leahy Law requirements, which prohibit the United States from providing military assistance to foreign military units that commit gross human rights violations.

The greatest obstacle to American efforts has been the Nigerian government itself. Nigeria has largely been wary of American training assistance, viewing such training as a form of subjugation or interference. Indeed, the Defense Department’s Principal Director for African Affairs Alice Friend testified that Nigeria is “an extremely challenging partner to work with.” The Nigerians have also acknowledged that there is Boko Haram infiltration within the government and security services, complicating American cooperation and intelligence sharing.

Furthermore, corruption has nearly crippled the Nigerian military’s ability to respond to the threat. Despite having the largest defense budget in Africa, Nigeria is unable to adequately train, equip and even pay its troops on the ground due to its gross corruption. Multiple reports of mutiny over inadequate equipment and low morale have surfaced over the past few months. Some 400 Nigerian troops fled to Cameroon just last week to escape intense fighting.

Where the Nigerian military fights, it has so far responded in a heavy-handed fashion to Boko Haram, in many cases killing innocent civilians and detaining suspected militants without due process. As such, local populations neither trust nor want to cooperate with the military in its efforts.

As Pham notes, the solution to Boko Haram cannot be solely military. The nation faces deep social, religious and economic divides that must also be addressed. A lack of political will to address its many internal problems also lies at the heart of Nigeria’s troubles. Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies perhaps said it best: “The leadership of some countries, when confronted with a national crisis, put their differences aside and tackle it together. Not Nigeria.”

Nigeria’s neighbors, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. They have the political will to address the Boko Haram threat, but they lack the military and law enforcement capacity to take on the extremists or keep their borders safe.

The United States needs to consider ways to pressure the Nigerian government to address its internal problems while continuing to assist Nigeria’s more willing neighbors in protecting their borders. Unfortunately, our options are limited. Because Nigeria is such a resource-wealthy nation, it will be difficult to use $300 million in annual foreign assistance as a carrot in exchange for reforms.

At the very least, America’s diplomats should continue calling for Nigeria to make the changes it needs. Thomas-Greenfield addressed the U.S.-Nigeria Bi-National Commission last week, saying, “This is a sober reality check for all of us. We are past time for denial and pride.”

Without addressing its systemic corruption and human rights abuses, Nigeria cannot be an effective partner in the fight against Boko Haram. American’s best hope for now is that the emergence of a self-proclaimed “Islamic state” on Nigerian territory will finally force Abuja to get serious. Otherwise, our best option may be to continue to work with Nigeria’s neighbors and contain the Boko Haram threat as best as possible.

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